The American Dream Reconsidered: The Outsiders (1967)

By Kai-Arne Zimny

Image cred­it: https://www.flickr.com/photos/theeerin/3319626950

14-year-old orphan Pony­boy Cur­tis lives with his old­er broth­ers Dar­ry and Sodapop in a city some­where in Amer­i­ca. They are part of a greas­er gang which means they smoke, they fight, they swear. The author was only 16 when her nov­el The Out­siders hit the book­shelves and dis­turbed America’s sense of decen­cy. After­wards, Susan Eloise Hinton’s life was nev­er the same, and the atten­tive read­er might won­der if the oppo­nents of The Out­siders feared some­thing more than improp­er manners.

In the 1950s and 60s, Greasers were named for their wild greasy hair­styles, but the term does not just refer to fash­ion. Hin­ton shows us that greasers are on the low end of the social scale, either small-time crim­i­nals or – as is the case with Ponyboy’s broth­ers – break­ing their backs with hon­est work, yet still mak­ing lit­tle mon­ey. On the oth­er end, there are the Socs, short for Socials, the rich kids, born with a sil­ver spoon in their mouth who live in the good part of town and wear fan­cy clothes.

Susan Eloise Hin­ton is both cel­e­brat­ed and damned, receives prizes and angry let­ters alike. Her work is placed on the syl­labi of some schools and banned com­plete­ly from oth­ers. Even three decades lat­er, The Out­siders ranks 43rd on the ALA’s list of the “100 most fre­quent­ly chal­lenged books 1990 – 2000.” Vul­gar­i­ty, vio­lence, and drug-abuse are the most numer­ous­ly stat­ed rea­sons for con­cern, in short, the fear that the novel’s young char­ac­ters might be a bad influ­ence on the novel’s young read­ers. In his pod­cast, Banned Library, ST Hark­er com­ments on the con­tro­ver­sial nature of The Out­siders.

Grant­ed, cig­a­rettes are omnipresent in Ponyboy’s gang, and vio­lent con­flict with the Socs appears to be dai­ly busi­ness. Also, they cer­tain­ly don’t talk like Har­vard grad­u­ates. But is it pos­si­ble that expres­sions like “shoot” and “gol­ly” led to a nov­el being denounced as “vul­gar”? Most impor­tant­ly: The Greasers’ lifestyle is not glo­ri­fied. So, what was the all the fuss about? 

In 1931, the Amer­i­can his­to­ri­an James Truslow Adams wrote “a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innate­ly capa­ble, and be rec­og­nized by oth­ers for what they are, regard­less of the for­tu­itous cir­cum­stances of their birth.” With these words, he coined the slo­gan of the Amer­i­can Dream, which since then has devel­oped into a pow­er­ful sym­bol of America’s great­ness. 76 years lat­er, then-soon-to-be Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma pro­claimed in a speech “that through hard work and sac­ri­fice each of us can pur­sue our indi­vid­ual dreams, but still come togeth­er as one Amer­i­can family.”

Hinton’s nov­el and those quotes make it obvi­ous that Pony­boy and his Greas­er friends are not part of that dream. The Socs kids, how­ev­er, who have it all look down on those who have noth­ing – along with the rest of soci­ety. There is no sign of “one Amer­i­can fam­i­ly” in the book, only class con­flict and social inequal­i­ty. Ponyboy’s vision near the end of the nov­el, a world “with­out greasers or Socs, with just peo­ple” can be con­sid­ered Hinton’s social state­ment in lit­er­ary form. This antithe­sis to the Amer­i­can Dream was like­ly viewed as a threat to the minds of young Amer­i­cans dur­ing the heat­ed times of the Cold War. So maybe the whole ado wasn’t tru­ly about “gol­ly,” but more about “com­mie.”

I do not mean to lift a fin­ger or even take sides here: The idea of the Amer­i­can Dream is a com­plex cul­tur­al top­ic with a long his­to­ry, not a sim­ple “yay or nay” ques­tion. So are the fears and feel­ings dur­ing the Cold War era. Nev­er­the­less, The Out­siders is a quick, sim­ple, and a worth­while read, and maybe look­ing at con­flicts from the past can help us learn for the present. In 2017, S.E. Hin­ton talks about the last­ing suc­cess of her nov­el in this interview:

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